Erin Kilmer-Neel believes that we can repair our culture of disconnectedness by strengthening our localized economy. “Money drives so much of what makes the world go round that if we are thoughtful about where we spend and save and invest, we can make the world a better place,” she says, describing what she calls “business as a theory of change.” As co-founder of Oakland Grown, Kilmer-Neel works to empower local, independent businesses and encourage the public to divest from the massive, anonymous corporations that have strangleholds on our economy.

There are so many incentives to encourage mass production, unsustainable practices, cheap and alienating labor, and conglomeration that it has become the work of non-profits to counteract those incentives, Kilmer-Neel explains. “If we want an economy that is sustainable, that gives owners and workers a stronger sense of ownership and autonomy and gives neighbors a sense of shared space, then we have to bolster the local economy,” she said.

How does Oakland Grown do that? The answer is threefold.

Kilmer-Neel  says that the programming component involves mixers and events for entrepreneurs and artisans to collaborate and share resources and advice. The community engagement component takes the shape of campaigns like the Shop Local billboards, the Oakland Grown Card, which rewards local shoppers, and city advocacy on behalf of the local merchant constituency. Lastly, the community capital component helps connect entrepreneurs and artisans with funding sources that are mission-aligned and non-predatory.

“My view is that we as non-profits shouldn’t even exist,” says Kilmer-Neel , “our tax system and public infrastructure should be able to meet our needs rather than leaving the public at the will of wealthy donors.”

One of her goals, she says, is to work closely with the city to revise practices and ordinances that give advantages to large-scale businesses at the expense of mission-aligned, local, independent ones.

“There are so many amazing people working in the city that are getting into it and want to help,” she says. “Everyone–including the larger, anchor businesses who have really profited from Oakland’s development– knows that they are going to live or die by the extent to which Oakland remains an interesting and attractive place to live.” Kilmer-Neel is excited by the willingness of thriving institutions to discuss ways in which they can give back and reinvest in the city that has made them.

Kilmer-Neel decided to pursue urban planning after falling in love with Oakland. After interning in the city government she decided to attend MIT’s graduate program with the intent to return and devote herself to Oakland’s equitable growth.

“If you sit like we are now at a café in New York everyone’s going to be writing novels and plays, if you’re in LA they’re writing screenplays and TV scripts, if you’re in Silicon Valley they’re writing tech business plans. In Oakland everyone’s writing social venture business plans,” says Kilmer-Neel, describing Oakland’s character. “We just really need to bake that mentality into city processes, and quick. Because if we blink, we will turn into San Francisco.”


Erin Kilmer-Neel is one of the organizers of Prosperity for All, the June 2014 conference in Oakland sponsored by BALLE.